The Concept of Commodification

More musings from the Story of Stuff book:

Because we spend so much of our time chasing after money, to buy stuff that we don’t need, that promises us the world but delivers none of it – our communities are suffering. We spend so much time on the above, that we’re not available to be present and useful amongst our local community. This feeds our discontent and unhappiness because people in our local community could meet our need for relationship. We can have our emotional needs met by having a chat with a neighbour. We can have logistical needs met, by a neighbour bringing us a meal, babysitting, dog-walking, offering a lift or taking in our mail whilst we’re away.

Ironically, all of these things have now been commodified in our consumerist society and are available to buy from strangers, at a price! Probably most people don’t even know their neighbours these days, since all they do is go to work early and arrive home late. They are too busy, too stressed, time-poor and over-scheduled. No wonder we have increasing amounts of isolated elderly, or even depressed and overweight adults and children in our society. And the solution is really so simple!

If you’re a systems thinker, than you might liken this phenomenon to a negative feedback loop. A problem or problems, that cause an effect that only serves to add to the original problem. We now have to work harder, to pay for the kinds of service that friends and neighbours used to provide for free. This only serves to add to our stress levels and lack of time. So you can see how the downward spiral continues!

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More Musings on the Story of Stuff – Branding & Marketing

As I said yesterday, I’m currently reading this book:

Today, in the chapter on distribution I struck upon something horrifying. I guess I sort of knew this already, but seeing it in black and white is even more shocking. I’m sure we all know that most companies out there don’t actually make the stuff they sell, but they buy it in and have unknown manufacturers make it for them. We’ve seen this so much in the clothing industry where brands like H&M and Primark have clothes made up in India and take no responsibility for the working practices of those in their supply chain. This is all part of these companies plans to cut costs, basically by abdicating responsibility.

This efficiency driven, cost-cutting is pervasive. Companies don’t make the stuff they sell, they simply brand it. Apple don’t make computers, but they sure as heck have created a brand that people crave. H&M don’t make clothes, Nike doesn’t make trainers. They all simply buy the garments and items from producers, or the parts to assemble them and often not even from the same factory, but from multiple producers. It’s quite possible that one factory churns out the exact same product for multiple retailers.

So really, let’s face it – it’s often not the item we are buying, but we’ve been sold on the brand. The founder of Nike even admitted that the company once saw themselves as production oriented, but that they now understand their most important function is to market the product. So guess where they put all their money? Advertising. And often this advertising isn’t even for a specific product, it’s all about the image they want to associate with their brand. Nike aren’t selling your trainers, they are selling you a fashion statement that in this climate will probably be outdated in a mere 2 weeks!

Biomimicry

I’m currently reading this book: The Story of Stuff. How Our Obsession with Stuff is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health – and a Vision for Change by Annie Leonard.

I’m ashamed to say that I picked it up in a charity shop about 4 years ago, started to read it, stopped and then it went back on the shelf for years! Let’s just say it’s quite heavy going and American-centric, but there are a lot of relevant points to anyone, living anywhere in the world.

Today, I was interested to learn of the concept of ‘biomimicry‘. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard that term used and described in this particular way before. But I wanted to make a note of it for future reference. Biomimicry is apparently a trend in modern design, in which designs are influenced by nature.

There is even an organisation called the Biomimicry Institute which has noticed that “nature, imaginative by necessity, has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with. Animals, plants, and microbes are the consummate engineers. They have found what works, what is appropriate, and most important, what lasts here on earth. This is the real news of biomimicry: After 3.8 billion years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival.

Biomimicry experts have identified the following list of core principles in how nature functions:

  1. runs on sunlight and uses only the energy it needs
  2. uses a water-based chemistry
  3. fits form to function
  4. recycles everything
  5. rewards cooperation
  6. banks on diversity
  7. demands local expertise
  8. curbs excesses from within
  9. taps the power of limits

So, the art and science of biomimicry takes these principles and figures out how to make human technologies, infrastructure, and products that adhere to them as well.

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Some examples given in the book, are that the peacock’s brilliant feathers are not created through pigment, but through shape. They have many layers that allow light to bounce off them in different ways, which translate as colour to the naked eye. I had to Google this a bit further, it’s known as ‘structural colouration’ and was first discovered by Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton (2 English scientists). It describes microscopically structured surfaces, fine enough to interfere with invisible light (sometimes in combination with pigments). So, peacock feathers are actually pigmented brown, as you can see when you turn them over. But it’s their microscopic structure that makes them reflect blue, green and turquoise light and they are often iridescent. Butterflies also use this ‘technique’. Perhaps this could avoid the need for toxic dyes to be created, if we could harness a similar technique?

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Mother of pearl is created in cold, salt water – a substance twice as strong as ceramic. Perhaps we could eliminate the use of fossil fuels, in heating kilns to make ceramics? Maybe we could learn to extract metals from cold water?

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The threads that hold a mussel shell to a rock naturally dissolve after 2 years. Perhaps we could study this and learn to create compostable packaging? (I think this one is starting to occur, approx 10 years after the book was written).

I’m not a product designer, but I did once study art. I think it’s fascinating to look at the natural world more closely, even if I was just doing it for beauty’s sake. I would have no idea how to create the intricacies of a leaf, for example, with veins running through it to carry water and nutrients, or cells that contained chlorophyll and knew how to grow, and goodness else knows whatever else goes on in there! But I bet there are scientists who could begin to work on these dilemmas. Perhaps artists could work with scientists to create truly beautiful, functional designs that remained harmless to us and our planet?

It seems to me that there is more to being a designer than just knowing about technology, or engineering, or science. Everything in the natural world seems to hold some innate beauty within it too. I can’t help but come back to the Christian ideas of intelligent design or things being created by someone far cleverer than us. Perhaps the plants and animals haven’t found out what works by trial and error over time? Perhaps they were designed that way from the outset? By someone who already knew the delicate balance of the earth’s chemistry and systems? It’s an interesting thought isn’t it?

Things that have gone – 22

Decluttering continues apace – an imminent new arrival will give you added motivation I have found!

This week I’ve sold items, given them away on Freecycle, passed them onto other people after I spotted specific requests for that item and given items to charity shops.

  1. Book – given to family member after I finished reading it
  2. Book – sold, Facebook group for that subject area
  3. Turf- specific request spotted on Freecycle, given away (would have just left it to decompose otherwise!)
  4. Cat radiator bed – sold via Facebook Marketplace
  5. Ornamental Flute-  sold on eBay
  6. Oasis blouse – sold on eBay
  7. Bag of clothing, books, DVDs and craft items – sent to charity shop
  8. Glass worktop savers- given to someone after specific request seen
  9. Wooden chopping board- given to someone after specific request seen
  10. Selection of cleaning products, scourers and cloths (I no longer use these items, since switching to greener methods)- given to someone after specific request seen
  11. Baking tray- given to someone after specific request seen

I literally have only 17 items left on eBay now, some of which I will give away if they don’t sell soon. And then I would honestly struggle to find something around the house to sell or give away, since I have pretty much got it down to items I need or use regularly (she says now). I am sure I will re-evaluate that point of view a few months down the line!!! But for now, I am happy and have totalled almost £3K back in the bank from this frenzy of selling over the last 18 months. I think that’s about what eBay reckon most people have tucked away in their houses/ lofts, storage etc.

Tutorial – How to Make Reusable Baby Wipes

I thought I’d write a quick tutorial on how to make homemade reusable baby wipes. I basically cut up 4-5 old hand towels and edged them with bias binding. Plus, I made some zipped pouches from leftover material scraps and a few pence for zips – have some unlined for clean wipes and some with waterproof lining for dirties. Let’s hope they work! I will report back in a few months.

  1. Cut up your old hand towels. I based my sizing roughly on commercially available microfibre, reusable, towelling wipes. I figured I’d make mine slightly larger, so as not to waste any material and it also meant less cutting! So, as my towels were folded in half, then into quarters and then again into eighths – I went with that and cut each towel into 8 pieces, rectangular in shape.
  2. I purchased a roll of white 25mm bias binding from my local fabric shop and pinned this around the raw edges (half each side of the edge, if you’re new to this). I didn’t need to bind every edge because the towels were already bound when whole.
  3. Then I stitched this in place using my sewing machine. You will need to use a heavy duty or jeans needle for this thickness of fabric. And that’s it – you have your wipes! They will be machine washable and tumble dryable at 60 degrees C, just like they were as towels. I plan on just chucking mine in with the reusable nappies.
  4. I decided to make these fabric cases to put mine in and they should also be very portable, when out and about or travelling. The design comes from a Cath Kidston sewing book (which I was very kindly given for Christmas). I have just made some unlined and some with a waterproof layer of PUL. I will see if I can get a tutorial up for those soon. I used fabric and ribbon scraps that I had leftover from other projects. The only items I had to purchase was a few zips for pence and the PUL fabric. I’ll report back on how they do – I may need to waterproof the seams of the wet bags. If you’re not into sewing, you can buy similar reusable wipes here and wet bags here.

Happy sewing people! Let me know how you get on in the comments.

Zero Waste Cleaning Fails

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I recently mentioned that I was having little success cleaning my toilet with natural products, like soda crystals and citric acid. I did give up, I just could not remove all the limescale with citric acid and it was building up way faster than when I use a chemical cleaner. I think this was also the reason the toilet was smelling bad because nasty compounds clinged to to the limescale – gross! We do live in a very hard water area, which may be why this was presenting such a problem. It would have cost me an absolute fortune to continue to clean this way, as I was needing to buy new products every fortnight at the cost of £2.50 – such was the volume of product I needed to use to even get the toilet partly clean! Now, I can buy a chemical toilet cleaner for £1 and it lasts for a couple of months. I continue to use my natural disinfecting spray on the outside. This is the best I can do, although I have just purchased an eco toilet cleaner from Waitrose to see how it goes. I was totally unimpressed with Ecover’s offering, so we will see.

I recently used up my ceramic hob cleaner, so I thought I’d give natural alternatives a go. I tried using bicarb but it was difficult to use, hard to mix and hard to remove and it couldn’t tackle grease on the hob. I tried using vinegar, as I hoped the acid might break down the grease but it failed to shift it either. So, sorry to the planet but I am going back to my Hob Bright if soda crystals also fail me.

I don’t mind using natural methods, IF they work. But what is the point if they don’t?! I’m sorry but I’m not going to have a dirty home in the name of being zero waste. Homemade dishwasher tablets were another massive disaster!

All this said, I have great success with natural disinfectant, citric acid to descale the kettle, soda crystals to clean the oven and vinegar to clean glass. Do you have any tips you’d like to share? Where am I going wrong?

Lush Solid Shampoo and Conditioner Bars

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I realised that in all my Lush posts, I didn’t actually have a picture of their solid shampoo and conditioner bars. So here they are – now you know what they actually look like. I find one of these lasts about a month for me, but I have very long, thick hair. My husband has short hair and I think he can make them last more like 6 months which is pretty awesome value! Pictured are the ones I use – Montelbano (the yellow shampoo bar) and Jungle (the green conditioner bar). Montelbano is full of lemons to add shine and Jungle has an exotic scent; also it is a very light conditioner so ideal for greasy hair. My husband uses Soak & Float which contains Cade Oil – designed to help with psoriasis,  dandruff and eczema. I also LOVE their BIG solid conditioner, which makes my hair seriously soft and shiny.

Lush now make the conditioner bars in an oval shape, so you can tell which is which, without looking. You can also buy little tins to transport them in, if you are travelling. I only have the round tins, as I bought them before they changed the shape. I cut down the conditioner to take it with me, as I don’t want to buy more. You should always allow them to air dry however, or they will go soggy. They do have a tendency to stick to the tin, so at home I store them on a wire soap rack.

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If you want to read more about ingredients and how to use them, you can go to the Lush website and they even have a video. We will never go back to buying shampoo and conditioner in plastic bottles! These work so well, take up less space in our bathroom and  are fantastically compact for travelling. Plus, you can avoid any rules about taking liquids onboard.

Care to share your experiences with solid toiletries?